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Coming Home Part 1
Coming Home Part 1

Coming Home Part 1

Broken_HeartedPhoenix
1 Review

-----------Charlie Holloway has hit rock bottom. He's come out in the worst way possible and will soon have to switch schools, where he will have to see his ex Theo Broussard in class every day. Charlie just wants to find happiness, but the world seems to be conspiring against him. Meanwhile, Theo must figure out some things for himself, as he weighs what he wants in life and what to do after graduation. The two are no longer on speaking terms and each will have to find their own way in the world, before either can ever find love again, together or separately.---------------

Chapter 1

The date was Saturday, April 2nd, the time was 1:37 AM, and Charles Lucas Holloway was an absolute mess. He had been this way for a long time now, a long descent into isolation, and borderline alcoholism had led him to this point. Now, he was lying face-down on the air mattress in Julia's basement after having just come out in the most chicken-shit manner possible, a change to his Insta bio.

He wouldn't have even come out at all, had it not been forced upon him. The inciting incident for his coming out could in retrospect be described as a death rattle. Charlie had seen it happen with his grandfather a few years back. A comatose body making one final push, momentarily appearing to still have a chance at life. Salvation appears closest at the lowest moments. The past eight months have been a cascade of indignities and horrors for Charlie, but this was his nadir, so far at least.

Ever since he was too young to realize what was going on, Charlie always had someone to pine over and fixate on. For a long while, that role had been filled by his ex, but that could no longer be the case. He'd somewhat gotten over his former boyfriend after he found a new object for his affections, Ollie Marsden. They shared a few classes together and were hockey teammates.

The previous extent of their relationship had been occasional acquaintances, but Charlie had managed to convince himself that Ollie was flirting back whenever they interacted. Ollie's blond curls and soft features bore a passing resemblance to a certain someone, but Charlie reasoned that Ollie was much taller so that couldn't be the case. His love-struck, clouded judgment caused him to ruin everything.

Alcohol, his constant companion for nearly over a year now, was partly to blame for this mess he found himself in. He had chosen to ignore that Ollie Marsden had never given any indication that he was anything other than the straight-as-an-arrow, frat jock he presented himself as. Intoxicants couldn't be fully to blame for one of the worst decisions of Charlie's young life.

At a Tate Morgan house party earlier that night, Charlie's self-delusions manifested into real-life action when he lunged forward to deliver probably the most-cringeworthy kiss ever to Ollie's unexpectant lips, in full view of most party attendees.

Practically the whole grade had been there to witness it and undoubtedly the rest of the school would know about it by Monday morning. There really was no point in trying to deny it, even if the thought of blaming it on an errant drunken prank gone wrong did cross his mind. Julia, the ever-practical one, had helpfully extracted him from the party before he could formulate any absurd denial. After all these months, Charlie had finally come to the conclusion that the charade wasn't worth it anymore.

He was too hesitant and his hands were trembling too much to do anything other than replace his Insta bio with a line from Gloria Carter's poem from the end of "Smile," love who you love because life isn't guaranteed, smile, with a single rainbow flag emoji. Even now, he couldn't bring himself to bolder action. With that accomplished, he allowed the darkness of a drunken sleep to wash over him.

The past few months had not been kind to Charlie. His parents separated shortly after his coming out to them and his father moved out, while Charlie remained with his mother. The break-up had led to even further isolation. Eva and Patrick still wouldn't speak to him and he mostly hung out with his football teammates. He could only spend so much time with Julia and Tate or he'd begin to feel like a third wheel.

Charlie had always been a heavy drinker during parties, but since junior year started, his proclivities got worse and were no longer confined to parties. He became quick-tempered and disinclined towards any work. His grades suffered, but a lack of focus also cost him on the field. He may have been a bigger part of the offense than the previous season as the team's leading scorer, but it was his fumble that cost them a playoff game and a chance at the state title.

Julia woke him up the next morning with a bottle of water and the promise of scrambled eggs with hot sauce, his favorite, waiting for him upstairs. He slowly made his way up and then gingerly ate his eggs, for fear of not keeping them down. As he ate, Julia rambled about how many inquisitive texts she'd received and how much she loved how he came out. Ever supportive, always kind.

Cautiously, Charlie interrupted her stream of consciousness, "hey, Jules, you know how you helped Tate dye his hair red last summer?"

"Sure do, such a shame the school made him shave it all off. He only had it like that for like two months, but it was so hot," she replied, with a lilt in her voice.

"Well, um, would you be able to do it again? But like, with my hair?" he tentatively asked, explaining "I've always wanted to go blonde and I've been thinking that with everything else that's happened I might as well now."

"Oh my god, yes, of course, I'll help!" Julia said, obviously excited by the prospect of dying my hair. "We can go to the beauty shop to get bleach and dye after we clean up here, can't leave a mess or my mom will freak."

The act of dying hair was simultaneously both more and not as complicated as Charlie had thought it would be. With Julia there to help, his role was simply to sit there on the edge of her shower as she mixed the blue powder and developer in a plastic bowl. He was surprised that she put on gloves before applying the bleach, which she did with a dye brush.

Julia warned that the solution might burn, but as the brush raked over his scalp, Charlie felt a cooling sensation. After completing her work, Julia instructed the younger boy to shower and make sure the dye was thoroughly rinsed out of his hair. She left the bathroom for him to do so and started playing "Nikes," the intro track to Blonde, from a speaker in her living room.

The process of fully removing the bleach from his head took a few songs to complete, but when Charlie turned the water off, exited the shower, and saw his reflection in the mirror, he felt reborn. Julia let out a sound that Charlie had never heard come out of her mouth before as he showed off his new look.

"Godspeed" came on by the time we had settled down after oscillating between giggling at each other and gassing each other up for several minutes. Wishing you godspeed, glory

There will be mountains you won't move. We finished the remaining two songs on the album and then just sat there for a long while.

Julia broke the silence, which had been almost reverential for Frank Ocean, after the end of "Futura Free," asking "so, have you given any thought about how you're going to handle Monday?"

Monday acted here as a euphemism for when Charlie would be forced to confront the blowback resulting from his decision to express his true self to the world. And, if he was being honest, Charlie would admit he hadn't thought that far ahead.

"Honestly, I'm beyond the point of caring," Charlie said firmly, even though it was only half-true if that. "If those guys give me shit, then I just won't play football. I'd like to see Coach try to win states this year without my help."

"You can be awfully full of yourself sometimes, Char."

"But you love me for it?"

"Love you despite it is more like it."

"I don't know what I'm going to do when you and Tate graduate," he admitted.

"What do you mean?"

"Eva and Patrick still won't talk to me. I'd imagine most of the guys won't want to come within ten feet of me after last night, so that kinda just leaves you and Tate."

"You'll figure something out. You're strong, Charlie, you can make it through one year, and then you'll be in college and that'll be so much better."

"You're wrong."

"What?"

"I'm not strong. I'm weak, I'm a coward. I've spent the past nine months on a basically nonstop bender because a boy broke my heart."

"Maybe you'll be like Samson. This hair will give you some newfound strength."

"I hope you're right. I'm scared, Jules. I might be able to handle Monday, but what comes after that?"

Julia reached forward, grabbing Charlie's hands, almost as if in prayer, "you may not believe me when I tell you this, but I think you're the bravest person I know, Charlie."

Charlie found himself at a loss for words in the wake of his friend's high praise, so she continued, "now, c'mon, we have to tone that hair so it doesn't look so metallic."

Chapter 2

Monday morning came much sooner than Charlie would've liked. After Julia toned his hair, the rest of the preceding weekend was spent primarily in his bed. His mom had freaked when he saw his hair, but thankfully not enough to force him to shave it all off. School might be different.

He'd half-hoped that his mother wouldn't let him go to school with dyed hair, but that didn't happen. As he parked his car in the senior lot, an overwhelming feeling of dread washed over him as he knew he was in for a shit day. Slowly, he exited the car and retrieved his backpack from the passenger seat, slinging it over his shoulder and making his way into the school building. He fumbled with his headphones and put them in, playing the Savage Remix and doing his best impression of Isak in season three of Skam.

He kept his head down as he entered the building, walking past an obscenely homoerotic painting of Saint Sebastian's execution, finding a parallel between his current situation and the depiction of that saintly twink. Passing through the lobby mostly unnoticed, Charlie kept his head down as he made his way down the senior corridor to his locker. He hoped his headphones would distract him from whatever was being whispered about him.

Nothing really happened as he reached his locker, made his way to homeroom, and then on with his day through his class schedule, much to his surprise. Then, he realized that no one was really interacting with him at all, save for Julia and Tate. At lunch, he could tell he wasn't wanted at his normal table, filled with many of his teammates, including Ollie, so he sat alone at a table in a far corner. He was shocked when his last two friends joined him, absconding their shared friend group in favor of eating with him as a trio.

Those first few days went by exactly like that. No one was outrightly negative towards him, but no one showed him any kindness either. Well, Charlie couldn't say that. There were a few people who offered words of support and encouragement. They just weren't the type caliber of people he felt were of his deserved social status.

He knew it was wrong to think something like that, but he still couldn't help feeling even after everything that he'd much rather go back to the way things used to be with his old friends, who likely hated him now for an immutable fact of his existence and were spreading speculative bullshit about him behind his back, than associate any of the kids who didn't go out to parties whenever possible. They were better people than him, he was sure of that, but life just didn't look as fun outside of being with the popular and privileged crowd.

This strange period of isolation came to an end by midweek, because Wednesday brought Charlie's first lacrosse since coming out. He dreaded it more than anything. He'd been grateful that his teammates had resolved to avoid him, rather than a more violent alternative, but how long would this detente last when they were forced to change side-by-side with him in a confined space. Charlie had always kept to himself, maintaining a practice stare to an unoccupied space in the locker room until he could leave, so as not to arouse even the hint of suspicion. He hoped this years-long practice would be enough to avoid any unnecessary incidents.

Charlie couldn't have been more wrong about that. After the final school bell rang, he lingered at his locker for way too long before making his way to the changing rooms, planning to get dressed as soon as possible and get out of there quickly.

Upon his entry, he heard several comments that essentially all boiled down to some putrid-looking straight boy who probably never washed his face in his life joking that he would be Charlie's next "target." He tried to ignore the comments but managed to covertly glance at Ollie, who seemed conflicted about what was happening before him. He then looked to Patrick, hoping to find some reassurance, but found none.

These comments weren't targeted at Charlie directly. He now took the role of the outsider his former friends poked fun at to feel better about themselves. He hated that he felt worse about no longer feeling included than being the subject of mockery. This strange dynamic ended when Scott refocused their cruelty on Charlie, "hey gay boy, why don't you just save everyone some trouble and quit the team? Go back to your butt buddy Teddy."

Chapter 3

Charlie's latest therapy session began a lot like his first, with him sitting in complete silence and contempt for the situation. It was June now and his mother had forced him back to Susan's warmly-decorated office, nearly a year since his last session. He sat on her couch with his arms crossed and putting on a display much like a five-year-old would when forced to do something they wouldn't want to.

Susan treated this intransigence exactly the same as she had when he put on a similar display at their first two sessions. She didn't negotiate with terrorists or in her case entitled suburban teenagers refusing treatment. She was getting paid for the hour no matter what and there was no sense trying to force any breakthroughs when a patient was unwilling to engage.

The first time around it took until the third session and two-and-a-half hours of silence before Charlie started opening up little by little. If Susan was a gambler and the over/under was an hour, she'd take the under this time.

Much like a year ago, Charlie had been forced to Susan's office by his mother. A months-long depressive state had been the impetus last year. This year, the incitement was more acute: he'd shown up drunk to his last final at Saint Sebastian; not just hungover, he actually got drunk before a 10 AM final. He'd still managed to get an A, which he thought would assuage any of his mother's concerns. It did not.

So, here he was, fulfilling one of two components to a deal with his mother that would prevent him from being sent to live with his father or military school for his senior year. He knew the former threat was largely empty, but the former carried some weight when his retired colonel grandfather ran one in New York. The other part of the deal was that he'd give up drinking for the entire summer. He was fulfilling both, albeit very reluctantly.

As the clock rounded the twenty-minute mark, Charlie began thinking that actually talking about what he's been going through lately might actually be worthwhile, even if doing so would be to attempt he was wrong. After much debate, he finally disturbed the tranquil quietude of the room.

"I would tell you about what happened, but the truth is I don't really remember the specifics that well."

"That is very common with traumatic brain injuries," Susan empathized, "but that doesn't mean those traumas don't stick with you."

"I know that," Charlie nearly snapped, "really, I've had two concussions before; it's no big deal."

"But, this is the first time one's been inflicted on you purposefully."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."

"Regardless, it's definitely the first time you've been attacked for being gay?"

"Of course. I wasn't really out until recently."

"Was this episode emblematic of how you were treated by your peers after your disclosure?"

"No, not really. Like, no one really had anything nice to say about it, but that's the problem all my friends just basically acted like I never existed. Weirdly, I felt relieved when Scott did that to me because at least he was acknowledging my existence. I know that sounds messed up."

"Conflicted feelings are common in situations like this. Did you feel betrayed by your former friends?"

"I mean, not really. I guess I always knew that being out would mean the end of my friendship with them. I subsumed this whole big part of me just so I could maintain those friendships. I knew how most of them felt about gay people-—I'd paid very close attention whenever someone expressed a view of this topic over the years—but, part of me deep down always thought that because I was me that they'd look past that in the end."

"Because you thought your close bonds with these people that spanned your collective childhoods would mean more than inherited bigotry?"

Charlie let out a soft chuckle at that, "no, not at all. I know the friends I had were just friends of convenience. I played sports and they played sports or they hung around the athletes, so we all got along. I was under no illusion that any close bond would extend beyond our shared high school years. I'd go off to some urban liberal arts college and live in some metropolis and they'd go to state college and then come back here to raise a family."

"Then, why did you think they wouldn't act the way that they did?" Susan asked, perking up and now seeming genuinely curious, not just asking the question as part of a methodical process.

"I'm not like other gay people, certainly not the ones they're used to laughing at in the halls or on TV. I'm just like them in almost every aspect except I like guys and not girls and I thought that'd be worth something. Shit, I know that's so messed up to say.”

Susan took a deep intake of breath and then responded, "while, yes, that is a problematic outlook, you should remember that you were raised in the same environment as your friends so it makes sense that you'd internalize some of those same prejudices."

"Doc, I understand what you're saying, like intellectually, but it still makes me feel like shit."

"Then, change your attitudes. You don't have to participate in a culture of hate if you choose not to and do the work to undo your preconceived ideas."

"I think part of me hates myself for being gay. Like, I know being gay is totally natural and it's not immoral, but there's just this part of me that hates that I have to be this way. Things would be so much easier if I wasn't. I certainly wouldn't have to change schools for my senior year if I wasn't."

"That's one way of looking at it," Susan tutted, skeptically.

"You don't agree?"

"You're changing from a school where your peers are openly hostile to an unchangeable part of yourself to a new school with a much more welcoming environment. You were at one of the two best schools in the county and now you're at the other. And, better yet, there you can openly be your true self."

"I still will have no friends."

"Now, forgive me if this sounds rude, but did you have any friends left at Saint Sebastian?"

Charlie heaved over he laughed so hard at Susan's delicately-put read of his current social status. When she saw Charlie laughing, she started laughing too.

When they finally calmed down, they were nearing the end of the hour, but Susan still had one more thing she wanted to address with Charlie.

"So, what brought about the blonde hair?"

"Coming out, I suppose. I did it the day after it happened and I just thought if I'm going to be out I might as well do what I please and stop worrying what other people think."

"Charlie, I just want you to understand that you may have these pretensions of being 'better' or whatever than other gay people because you present at more masculine, but I mean, is that really a fair assessment when you're here in my office with dyed hair and a Lady Gaga t-shirt. Honey, I hate to tell you this, but you're really not fooling anyone."

Charlie's face fell at that and suddenly he was reevaluating his whole self-image.

Chapter 4

For the second time in a week, Charlie found himself in an office with an authority figure questioning him. More accurately, in this case, it was two authority figures. And, to make matters doubly worse, this office was located in a school, the last place Charlie wanted to be at the advent of his summer break.

Nevertheless, here he was, in the office of Mr. Matthews, the principal at Pine Brook, with Coach Hansen, who ran the school's football team, also in attendance. Even more to his displeasure, his mother was also present. They were there to officially enroll him at the school for the next year. Coach Hansen was there because Pine Brook's football team was supposed to be in an off-year and the addition of an all-state running back like Charlie could make their year.

As Mr. Matthews was slowly coming to the end of his long soliloquy on the values and prestige of his school, he ended on a note that made Charlie somewhat uncomfortable, "now, I know that things were handled differently at your last school, but Pine Brook has a zero-tolerance policy for physical violence between students and abusive language."

Charlie shifted in his seat. He hated the use of words that accurately describe what happened to end his attendance at Saint Sebastian because they made him feel like a victim and that wasn't something he wanted to be.

"That being said, there's another area of difference between schools that must be addressed. I am aware that Saint Sebastian has a two-hour grace period for athletes in the morning before they are marked late. That doesn't happen here and neither does any other favorable treatment based on extracurricular activities."

That one actually stung for Charlie, who had availed himself of that informal policy more times than he could count last year. He was in a shitty mood for being dragged out of bed this morning to come to this, so he thought he'd try to press his luck.

"Well, sir, knowing that I think just confirms for me that I really should be focusing on getting into college this year and jettisoning any distracting extracurriculars, especially after the trauma I experienced at my old school."

Mr. Matthews, a wiry, old academic-looking man, did not seem to know how to respond to that, which gave Charlie a momentary twisted pleasure. Then, Coach Hansen intervened, "if I know you like I think I do, Charlie, there's nothing that will keep you off that field for the rivalry game against Saint Sebastian this fall."

Hansen was calling his bluff and he was right. Bastard, Charlie thought briefly, but he had to respect it. "Now, Charlie," Hansen continued, "let's leave Mr. Matthews and your mom to the logistics and I'll take you to the weight room; some of the boys are doing off-season workouts today."

Before Charlie knew it, he was leaving the office with the coach and heading down a hallway towards the weight room. He hoped he wouldn't be expected to give any show of strength. He'd barely exercised at all in the past two months, mostly spending his time away from school lounging around, feeling sorry for himself, and rewatching The Sopranos.

There weren't many players in the weight room when they arrived, only about a half-dozen or so by Charlie's count. State rules made these off-season workouts technically voluntary but any halfway-decent team usually had full attendance at them because guys were fighting for spots. They must really be in bad shape this year, Charlie thought.

As if reading his mind, Hansen conceded, "we had fifteen starters graduate this year. We're basically starting over from scratch."

Charlie had instantly recognized two of the players upon walking in, Theo's friends Nolan and Jude, but had carefully avoided eye contact. However, eye contact and more would be inevitable when Hansen took him around introducing him to all the players present.

When they got to Jude, Charlie preempted Hansen, "Hey, man, how've you been?"

Jude, much to his surprise, lit up and started talking a mile a minute about lord knows what, but was quickly silenced when Nolan reproachfully said his name. Hansen had left them to speak with another coach.

"Nolan," Charlie acknowledged, returning to the other boy's coldness.

"I guess we're teammates now."

"I guess we are."

"You're out now so there's no excuse for your shitty behavior anymore, got that?"

"Nolan—" Jude began but stopped himself from saying anything further when he saw the look his friend gave him

Charlie didn't know how to respond to that and, thankfully, he didn't have to as Hansen returned and took him back to the front office to reunite with Mr. Matthews and his mother.

Just great, Charlie thought on the ride back home, not only do I not have friends, now I have enemies here too, apparently.

_________________________________________________

Charlie couldn't attend the football team's offseason workouts until July when his transfer cleared, which was fortunate for him because it gave him a few weeks to get back in shape. Several weeks of languid idleness had softened his form well below mid-season or even offseason form.

To remedy this, Charlie had taken to going for runs throughout his neighborhood every morning and then went to a local gym for a lift every afternoon. It seemed silly but he wasn't very acquainted with his own neighborhood. He'd lived there for years now, but had barely paid much attention to his surroundings. He didn't need to. He went to a different school from most of the other kids in his area and his arrival to the neighborhood came long after the need for friends within walking distance.

Now, it appeared that he'd be getting to know his surroundings and its inhabitants a bit better over the coming months. Saint Sebastian was like a community unto itself that liked to be as insulated as possible from the outside world, regarding it all with haughtiness and contempt.

Charlie's mind drifted to these thoughts as he was running, even through his playlist abstract thoughts such as these crept into his head. He hated the act of running, thinking it mindless and repetitive exertion of muscles, but he knew it'd be necessary for him to return to playing shape. Strangely, between coming out and switching schools, he was actually looking forward to the upcoming season, a welcome return to something he'd done his whole life. This was a marked difference from this time last year, when he was ready to quit, having lost interest in the sport, but this cluster of recent events seems to have reinvigorated...
Charlie was aroused out of his reverie by the honking of a car horn. Quickly gathering himself, he realized that in the midst of his run, he'd drifted out into the street of his suburban neighborhood and was preventing a car from passing. He quickly returned to the side of the road and gave an apologetic expression, with his face reddening, to the driver, a quick-tempered middle-aged man who appeared to be heading to work.

That's when he noticed him. A brown-haired boy who looked to be approximately his age had slowed his own morning run to witness Charlie's embarrassing display and he was laughing subtly to himself. The boy was dressed in some rather short shorts and a Pine Wood Swimming & Diving t-shirt. Charlie was mesmerized, having stopped his run completely to watch the supple figure pass him by. The teen noticed and flashed him a small smile before quickly returning to the road ahead of him, having the sense not to get distracted as Charlie had been.9

He spent most of his runs for the subsequent weeks searching his field of vision for the unidentified jogger, occasionally spotting him and exchanging nonverbal acknowledgments, but Charlie never worked up the courage to actually introduce himself to his newfound object of affection.

Chapter 5

July 1st meant the start of a new life, a plunge albeit a minimal one. It would be the first day he'd be working out with the team. Between Nolan's cold reaction a few weeks back and the general unease he knew most guys would have sharing a locker room with a gay player, Charlie did not things portended well for his first day.

So, here he was, immobile and sat in his car at the Pine Wood High parking lot. The clock on his dash read 7:51 AM, three minutes before he'd officially be late for his first practice with the team. The sun was still low in the sky, owing to it being less than an hour removed from its rise. He could see other players heading inside to the school's weight room already and he briefly worried if this was one of those 'if you're on time, you're late' situations.1

Deciding finally to just get it over with, Charlie surged out of his car in one swift motioning, slinging his gym bag over his shoulder in the process. He vaguely remembered the weight room's location within the school complex and made his way there, helped by the slow trickle of others all headed in the same direction. This early in the morning during the summer he couldn't think of any other reasons someone would be at a school

When he got there, he could see that a sizable crowd had gathered, about thirty players in all, much more than during his visit last month. Among them was Jude, who'd already spotted him and eagerly made his way over.

"Hey, man! Great to finally have you on the team!" He declared, with way too much enthusiasm for this early in the morning for Charlie's liking.

"Thanks, dude. I'm really glad to actually be here and get back into things."

"Are you saying all it took was one month of summer to get you out of shape?" Jude asked, teasingly.

"Well, for me, it's more like three months, if you'll recall. And, yes, but not anymore. I'm in top form now." Charlie scanned the crowd for Nolan and found him chatting with some other players. He too had noticed Charlie and gave a slight nod of acknowledgment.

"Here's hoping you aren't just bullshitting me, my dude."

"So, why are we all waiting out here?"

"Oh, the swim team has the weight room before us and they're just finishing up."

"They're here earlier than us?" Charlie asked in shock.

"Yeah, and you thought we had it bad? Dude, you could not pay me to be a swimmer. Their practices are insane too. I think their coach is like an ex-Navy Seal or something."

"Damn. Hey, not to start shit, but won't Nolan over there bark at you again for talking to me?"

"Nah, man, s'all good now. The dirty secret about Nolan is that he loves to win more than anything else and, shit, dude, you're our only hope, Obi-Wan."

"You seriously did not just quote Star Wars to me, you giant nerd."

Jude had some retort that Charlie didn't pay attention to and then went on a further tangent that he also did not hear because suddenly he was in the presence of the boy he'd been leering at for weeks now. Brown-haired runner boy was making his way out of the weight room, surrounded by some guys who presumably were his swim teammates. He told Nolan the weight room was "all yours" as he passed the other boy, with a teasing smile.

Then, the boy's eyes found Charlie's, and they momentarily locked contact and he gave Charlie a "hey," before he continued down the hall with his teammates. It was the first time he'd heard the boy's voice and this revelation left him absolutely helpless, unable to form a coherent response as he watched him walk away.

"You know Lucas?" Jude interjected, breaking Charlie out of his focus.

"Huh, what?"

"The guy who just said hey to you... don't you know him? I just assumed, but..."

"No, not really. I didn't even know his name until you just told me." So that's his name, Charlie deduced, Lucas.

"What, you two meet on grindr or something like that?"

"Dude, no. We must live in the same neighborhood because we pass each other on our morning runs a lot."

"You want his Insta handle?" Does this mean Lucas is gay? Charlie hoped.

"Why're you asking me that?"

"Because you were practically salivating as he walked by, my guy." Charlie was going to contend that remark, but Coach Hansen called them all into the weight room, diverting Jude's focus from their conversation.

As they were walking in, Charlie leaned over and said to Jude, at a volume only he could hear, "yes, I will take his Insta, since you have it," in a defeated tone. Jude turned to him and smiled ear to ear.

_______________________________________________________

Coach Hansen certainly put the team through its paces. After their workout, the team did laps around the track, and Charlie was glad he didn't try to get a run in beforehand. That would have just been disastrous. He briefly pondered if Hansen's drill sergeant coaching style was what kept players away from his workouts for as long as possible.

After Hansen finally called practice, practically the whole team rushed to get water. Between gulps, some of the guys, Jude and Nolan included, discussed plans to go to the community pool later in the day. Charlie didn't expect an invite. He was new and there were reasons for them not to fully embrace him right away that he understood, but that didn't mean the exclusion wouldn't hurt.

"Holloway, are you going to join us, or do you have better things to do?" Nolan asked, albeit abrasively.

"I'm surprised you'd want me there," Charlie responded, still a bit in shock.

"Hey, man, we're teammates now. We might as well be friends, too."

Charlie hesitated for a moment and debated pulling some excuse, but then Jude spoke up, "trust me, dude, you won't regret coming along."

The remark confused him a bit, but he agreed anyway, though he did feign a superiority about it, feeling the need to pretend he had something better to do on this Summer weekday morning.

Charlie then made his way back to his car and checked his phone for the first time since training started two hours earlier. The first thing he noticed was an Instagram notification that told him that Lucas Wright had followed him back. This day had thus far wildly exceeded expectations for a boy who had been paralyzed in fear of getting out of his car a few hours prior.

Chapter 6

The team parted ways for each to go retrieve whatever they'd need for the rest of their day from their respective houses. This would be the first opportunity Charlie had all summer to wear his new swim trunks, which fell just above the knee but felt scandalous in comparison to the longer, straighter-looking ones he was used to. The trunks he was wearing, conversely, had a bit of style to them. Charlie fretted for a moment whether his attire would be the subject of mockery by his teammates, but quickly decided to ignore that fear.

Charlie arrived at the local pool around noon seemingly just as everyone else did as well and a whole pack of them loudly made their way in together, no doubt causing some consternation for the elderly front-desk lady. Charlie had missed this, being part of a team and actually feeling some semblance of a bond with them. It made him realize he hadn't felt this type of camaraderie and companionship in years, ever since he became aware of a separation between himself and his peers. Now, though, none of that seemed to matter to his new teammates and he felt like a kid again, which technically he still was.

"You notice why I insisted that you come with us?" Jude asked, leaning over as the group was marking out territory with towels on pool chairs.

Charlie looked at Jude curiously for a moment, then the other boy pointed toward the lifeguard standing down by the other end. He noticed the lifeguard in the distance to be none other than Lucas, his hair still styled like nineties Matt Damon. In his small, tight-fitting green swim trunks he looked like him in that one beach scene The Talented Mr. Ripley, too.

"Ha! I called it!" Jude exclaimed, before turning back to whatever debate the guys were having over what to do first.

A little while later, after they'd had our fun in the pool, Charlie and his new teammates made their way to the snack shake. Charlie noticed on their way past the lifeguard stand that Lucas was nowhere to be found. He'd been sneaking glances at the boy all afternoon but had now lost track of him.

The guys monopolized a long picnic table and sent Charlie up to deliver their orders, which they joked would be the extent of their "hazing." He was fine with that, although it was a bit much for one guy to get the orders of ten others.

When he made his way up to the front of the line at the snack shack, though, he realized the hazing wasn't about a menial task but maximal embarrassment, because Lucas had traded his lifeguard duties for food service, taking the orders at the snack shack. He hadn't bothered to put a shirt on so he was still as scantily clad as before.

"Hey, man!" Charlie internally chastised himself for both the enthusiasm and straightness of his greeting.

Lucas appeared amused by Charlie's ineptitude. "Welcome to the snack shack, may I take your order...?

Did Lucas not know his name, Charlie cringed at his hubris for thinking his reputation preceded him. "Yeah, I've got a whole list just give me a sec," he got out before opening his phone and running through a rather extensive list.

"That'll be $45.50, Charlie."

"You know my name," he was so stunned it came out more as a statement than a question.

"Hard not to. I hope the guys will be reimbursing you for all this."

"Apparently, it's part of my 'hazing.'"

"Swim team usually just bleaches your hair, but I guess you already beat them to that one."

Charlie laughed a little too hard at that. The line behind him was getting annoyed, so Lucas got his drinks, and Charlie brought them back to the table as they waited on their food orders.

"How did it go with Lucas?" One of the guys asked. Charlie was terrible with names, but he was pretty sure the questioner was named Kenny.

"So y'all did know about that."

"It was Nolan's idea," Jude explained, with a pretense of defensiveness.

"Can't have our star player be mopey," Nolan said curtly, before cracking into a smile, "Nah, I'm just playing. I thought you might vibe too."

The past few minutes had been surreal for Charlie, from the relative ease he felt flirting with Lucas, in public no less, to his new teammates' support and even encouragement of said flirting. He felt like he was in some parallel universe where thousands of years of social norms were completely reversed.

"Order up, guys," Lucas announced, carrying two large trays of food, mostly fries, and burgers. "Now, remember, don't go back into the pool for thirty minutes after eating."

"Alright, mom," Jude teased.

"How's the swim team shaping up this year?" Nolan inquired. Interesting, Charlie thought, the guys seemed to actually be friendly with Lucas, not just tolerating.

"Better than y'all, I think. We had like no seniors graduating so we should make a deep run at states."

"Have you heard, Lucas?" That was Kyle, another teammate. "Mr. All-State Running Back over here's supposed to be our savior." Charlie knew by now this was a playful tease, not meant with any animosity.

"Is that so?" Lucas looked amused. "If that's the case, I hope you keep him happy. Maybe you can start by repaying him for this food."

"Me? Mooch? Never!" Jude protested.

"Judas, dear, you still owe me $10."

"I'm good at it. I'll venmo you and Charlie both right now."

"Do that. And, Charlie, maybe you can use all that money they owe you and we can do something sometime."

Charlie was gobsmacked as he watched Lucas walk back to his job, eyes glued on the boy's firm butt in those small, green trunks.

"Hate to see her go, but I love to watch her leave/but I keep her running back and forth, soccer team," Jude sing-songed off tune.

"You did not just quote 'Bedrock' to me. That shit's like a decade old, man."

"What can I say, I love the classics!" Jude exclaimed, before getting a devious smile and inquiring, "so, when can we start calling your Mr. Flintsone, Charlie?" The poor joke elicited groans from the rest of the group.

The team stayed at the pool for a while afterward. Instead of going back in the pool, they played some pick-up basketball at the court just off to the side of the pool grounds until the sun started setting. They made their way back to the pool area and Charlie scanned the whole scene for signs of Lucas, but he couldn't be located, probably on account of his shift being over.

"Did you text him yet?" Nolan inquired privately, just out of earshot of the others.

"Text who?" Charlie played dumb.

"Lucas, of course."

"I don't even have his number."

"I'll give you it if you want."

"Nah, man, that's probably too forward," Kyle interjected, the others having picked up on their conversation.

"He's probably right," Nolan conceded, "but you're mutuals on Insta, though, right?"

"Yeah," Charlie said, absentmindedly nodding.

"DM him then." Nolan's advice was met with enthusiastic approval from the group."

"I don't know... what would I even say?"

"'Let's bang," Jude offered, which was summarily rejected by everyone.1

"The trick is," Nolan began, "you have to show you were paying attention, something about the money we owe you."

"Do you really think bringing you guys up will elicit any romantic feelings?"

"No, no," Kenny started, "Noles is right... I got it! Send him a screenshot of all us venmoing you."

"With something like 'any idea how to spend it' as the message?" Charlie asked.1

"Perfect, I knew we could think of something," Jude proclaimed.

"You had nothing to do with this, dude," Nolan cut in, "but he's right. It's the perfect tone."

The guys are all Venmo's Charlie, who took a screenshot, and DM'd it to Lucas with the accompanying message. Lucas soon messaged him back and they began planning a meet-up in between flirtations.

Chapter 7

Charlie obsessively checked and fixed his hair in the rearview mirror as he waited parked on the curbside for Lucas to emerge from his house for their date. He would have wanted their date to happen the next day after their meeting at the pool, but his mother took him out of town to visit family down by the shore for several days.

Charlie had been so eager for their date, even if he was still unsure if it could be called that, that he texted Lucas asking to meet today instead of their original plan of a Sunday afternoon date. Lucas responded back in the affirmative faster than Charlie had expected so he scrambled over to Lucas's house as fast as possible.

He texted Lucas just after he put the car in park, but the other boy seemed determined to make him wait a few agonizing minutes. That or he just hadn't noticed the text notification on his phone yet. Either way his non-response had thus far created a vacuum through which his mind wandered, thinking unprompted that this was perhaps a mistake, for a multitude of reasons, such as...

But, then, a knock came on the passenger side window that startled him in his seat. He looked over to see Lucas barely suppressing a laugh at his expense. Charlie's cheeks must have been completely flushed red after that.

Composing himself as best he could, Charlie hastened to unlock the door and Lucas quickly hopped in, exchanging a greeting. He looked fantastic, Charlie thought. Lucas Wright was sitting in his car wearing a rather loose shirt and these red athletic shorts that barely reached his mid-thigh, showing off his very tanned skin. The benefits of lifeguard duty, Charlie reasoned.

The look was casual, in contrast to Charlie, who was slightly more dressed up, in a patterned short-sleeve button-down and chino shorts. He worried he was making this date a bigger deal than it was. The word date had never actually been used in all their conversations. You're messing this up already, his mind scolded him.

"So you're sure mini-golf isn't too corny for a first date?" Lucas asked, with a surprising uncertainty in his voice. He had been the one to suggest the venue.

"Oh, it's the corniest, but isn't that what first dates are for?" Charlie responded in jest.

"You might be right on that one."

"Okay, then, let's go have some corny-ass fun." Charlie started the car and pulled out of his curbside parking spot, making his way to the town's mini-golf course, which doubled as an ice cream shop.

Charlie had expected a leisurely game, with more focus on them talking than on the game itself, but Lucas was uncharacteristically competitive. Charlie liked to win, too, so it actually became a tense game. Trash talk was volleyed back and forth between the two of them throughout the eighteen holes.

On the sixteenth hole, with the classic mini-golf windmill, Lucas made a dirty joke about holes and golf balls right as Charlie was about to put, sending his ball flying. The ball landed on the green of the seventeenth hole, which was being played by a family of four. The mother's scolding look only reddened Charlie's blush.

Charlie got them ice cream afterward since they had agreed beforehand that the loser would pay for dessert. An ice cream shop was attached to the mini-golf, so a second location was not necessary to fulfill the bet.

The two began actually getting to know each other, then, since there was very little non-competitive conversation going during their game. They started out with the basics, such as school, extracurriculars, family, college goals, etc. It eerily felt to Charlie like the same subject matter that he'd cover in a conversation with an elderly relative, which made him feel like this wasn't going well.

Then, they got into territory that he definitely would not cover with his Great-Aunt Eunice.

"What's your body count?"

Charlie gulped, surprised at the question, and decided to stall. "Do you count only full sex?"

"Yeah, let's say that."

"Then, one. What's yours?"

"Three. Really? Just one? I would've figured more from you. Shit, I didn't mean that anyway it's just that..."

"It's fine, don't worry. I've done other stuff with a few guys, more than a few really, but my ex was the only one I did everything with."

"You can say his name, you know. It's not cursed."

"It feels like that sometimes," Charlie forced a laugh.

"Sorry, I shouldn't pry, but, um, there aren't many out gay guys at Pine Wood, especially sophomore year. It was really just me, then Theo, so when he needed someone to confide in I guess for some things it had to be me..."

Charlie visibly cringed, thinking his past mistakes were now coming back to haunt him.

Seeing this, Lucas hastened to add, "he never told me why you broke up, the second time at least; the first, it was pretty obvious."

Charlie burst out laughing at that, then quickly calmed himself. "I shouldn't laugh at that. I'm still ashamed of how I reacted."

"I get it. People make mistakes. They're called growing pains. You were fifteen, given absolutely no guidance from anyone of authority for how to handle what you were going through. Doesn't excuse it, but I'm not going to hold the actions of 15-year-old Charlie against 17-year-old Charlie."

"That's a relief. 15-year-old Charlie was a dick."

"Weren't we all?"

"Very true. I would like present-day Lucas to get to know present-day Charlie."

"I'd like that, but only if Charlie will stop talking about himself in the third person."

"Deal."

"It's weird. I feel like I already know you, well a lot of you, just from Theo."

"Wait, are you two like close friends?"

"Oh god, no. I wouldn't be here right now if I was. The gay community around here is small but I'd never try to hook up with a friend's ex. I guess you could say we were confidants? I don't think Theo's friends handled it well at first when he came out, so I might have been all he had."

"Really? Jude, I know he can say stupid shit sometimes, but Nolan's never struck me that way."

"Nolan's a good guy, but again fifteen-year-olds. We don't know how to handle shit, especially when no one's ever prepared us for it. He just took some time processing it. I think it was when one of your old teammates knocked Theo down real hard that time, it made Nolan choose a side and he chose Theo's."

At the time, Charlie had no idea about any of that. They were fighting around that time too, so Theo must have felt doubly isolated. He was glad that Theo had someone to talk to, even if it made the present conversation super awkward for him.

"Sorry I started this whole conversation about my ex on our first date..."

"Don't be. Better to get it all out in the open from the start."

"Shit, I called this a date didn't I?"

"You did, did you not want this to be a date?"

"No, I do. I just wasn't sure what you wanted."

"I want this to be a date, Charlie." And, with that, Lucas leaned over and gently kissed Charlie's lips, before pulling back.

"Your ex hasn't been wrong yet.

"What do you mean?"

"You're definitely 'socially clumsy' and you're a good kisser."

"I plead guilty on both counts."

"Your sentence is to come over here and kiss me some more," Lucas volleyed back.

"So now you're my judge, jury, and executioner?"

"And what about it? Now, get over here before I change my mind."

Chapter 8

Theo Broussard didn't care much for soccer. He used the sport more to maintain his high self-standard for physical conditioning, anything else gleaned from the sport was incidental at best. If Theo had it his way, he'd have spent the whole summer lounging around doing nothing but soccer workouts kept him in a modicum of shape during this time instead.

It was the dog days of August now and time for training camp. That meant five-hour practices in the worst of the heat. By the end of it all on the first day, Theo was exhausted and barely cognizant of his surroundings. Last year, Jude and Nolan hung out with him every day after those long August practices. Part of him knew that was more out of pity than anything else, as he'd just broken up with his first boyfriend. Now, his new boyfriend would want to monopolize his time after practice.

Call it nostalgia, but he missed those carefree afternoons of last year hanging with Nolan and Jude at whatever fast food place would let them loiter the longest. Those were good memories that helped ease harder ones. Now, not only had his ex transferred to his school but he was also on Nolan and Jude's team, which increasingly meant hanging out with them meant risking an encounter with Charlie.

Theo had kept his distance as best he could, assuming rightly that Charlie had been as hurt by their breakup as he'd been. Their only interactions in the past year were noticing each other in their peripheral visions at parties and against each other on the ice. Now, they'd be sharing a school and probably a good chunk of their schedules, too.

That was still weeks away, but for now, he had a taste of what that'd be like. The fields the soccer and football teams practiced on were right next to each other and Theo would be lying if he said he never glanced across the other field to steal a glance at a certain someone. He'd wanted to text or reach out somehow to see how Charlie was doing after the whole incident last school year, but his new relationship was just taking shape and he didn't want to risk falling back into old habits. It'd already happened once. When he asked Eva, she described him as looking 'broken inside.' Theo's efforts to convince her to renew her friendship with Charlie fell on deaf ears.

As his mind was racing through all this, he spotted Nolan walking alongside Charlie. They seemed to really be chumming it up from what he could tell. Jude, as was his way, had sprinted ahead of them to the locker room. Thank whoever there are separate locker rooms for the two teams, Theo thought briefly.

Theo resigned himself to the fact that he'd have to talk to Charlie eventually, so he started to make his way over to the pair. He stopped when he saw Lucas Wright had joined them, fresh from swimming practice in just his red speedo.

Lucas must be sizing up the new gay guy, Theo surmised. He decided he'd let the boy flirt unimpeded and shifted directions, thankful for the excuse to delay his eventual conversation with Charlie. He was glad he did when he noticed Lucas plant a kiss on Charlie's cheek and then Charlie wrapped his arm around Lucas, with his other hand used for carrying his football pads, as the trio made their way towards the locker rooms.

Theo sped up his walking to properly avoid them, quickly scrambling into the sanctuary of the non-football boys' locker room. All boys' sports teams that weren't football shared the same changing area, so it should have been no surprise when a few moments later Lucas walked in, preening madly.

Theo tried to look down to avoid eye contact with Lucas, but to no avail, because the boy made his way over to him. If Theo was barely ready to talk to his ex, he was definitely not ready to talk to his ex's new boyfriend.

"Hey, um..." Lucas began, "I'm not sure how to put this but I figured I should just give you a heads up before school starts..."

"I saw you and Charlie just now," Theo said, emotionlessly.

"Oh, that. Shit, I hate that that's how you found out about us."

"Lucas, there's no issue on my end. Charlie and I haven't been together for over a year now. He's fair game." Theo hadn't realized his breakup with Charlie had been that long ago until he said it, but it was true, even if those memories and wounds were still fresh.

"Okay, I really should have said something earlier, but I just didn't have the chance..."

"Seriously, it's fine. How long have you two been together?"

"Last weekend was our one-month anniversary. You never told me how romantic Charlie is. He's literally the sweetest and he marks every milestone." Certainly wasn't the case when we were together, Theo thought, not entirely dispassionately, but Lucas was smiling ear-to-ear and he didn't want to ruin that so he suppressed.12

"I've got to get going now, Lucas, but I'm glad we had this talk."

"Me too. I'm just glad things aren't awkward between us. Oh, shit, you probably are rushing off to your own man, aren't you? Don't let me keep you waiting then,"

"Let's have coffee again sometime soon, okay Lucas? We haven't had one of those in a while and I'm sure there's a lot to discuss on both our ends."

"Sounds like a plan, Teddy."

As soon as Theo was able to, he was nearly sprinting out the locker room door to his car. He didn't even check his phone until he was safely in his driver's seat. It was only then that he noticed a text from his boyfriend, inviting him over to his apartment for a few hours. His mom was pretty lenient, but she drew the line at him spending the night.

It's not really that they'd do anything anyway, but Theo was pretty sure he'd just pass out from exhaustion wherever he ended up. In that case, part of him just wanted to go home and crash on his own bed, but another part felt obligated to go. With training camp and then school, he wasn't going to be seeing his boyfriend as much so he should make the most of it while he can.

With that reasoning, Theo put his key in the ignition and made his way to his boyfriend's apartment. His boyfriend, Harry, lived just off of the local college's campus. Theo had been spending more time around there lately since his boyfriend shared his apartment with their mutual friend Dalia, whom Theo had gotten close to last year when he worked at Brewer Books.

Harry and Dalia, along with most of their other friends, had reached a point where typical college behavior seemed juvenile to them, so Theo never went to darties or frat parties or any other type of wild events when he hung out with them. They mostly just stayed in and smoked and maybe studied a bit. Theo felt like he had fast-forwarded through a whole segment of his life when he was with them, which he had mixed feelings about.

Theo barely said hello to Harry or Dalia when he entered their apartment, having become familiar enough to bypass such pleasantries in recent months, and made his way directly to their shared bathroom to shower.

The hot water relaxed his muscles as he tried to process the day he'd had, coming up with no justifiable reason for his negative reaction to seeing Charlie and Lucas together. He shouldn't feel anything at all. He chalked it up to a general feeling of helplessness brought on by one's senior year and the uncertainty of the college admissions process. He closed his eyes for a moment and nearly fell asleep standing up in the shower from exhaustion.

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Broken_Hearted
Phoenix
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